A Browning Pilgrimage

by Rachel Jacob, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

Part of my duties as a graduate research assistant at the Armstrong Browning Library involve looking through our collections to answer research questions people ask. A recent question related to the Armstrong tours caused me to look through the unprocessed collection of the tour company which Mary Armstrong, Dr. Armstrong’s wife, ran for many years. In researching this collection, I stumbled across the Browning pilgrimage which the Armstrong Educational Tours company created.

Brochure for the first Browning pilgrimage.

In 1926, the Armstrong Tour company offered an exciting tour of Europe highlighting areas of the Browning’s lives. The tour was infused with literary references and readings. The tourists, or “pilgrims”, would even have literary lectures given by Dr. Armstrong and European Browning scholars at various stops on the trip. Dr. Armstrong himself described the tour:

“This pilgrimage to the shrines of the most virile poet of the Nineteenth Century is a spontaneous growth, out of the minds and hearts of Browning Lovers of America. The tour will include all the interesting features along the usual path through artistic and literary and historic and scenic beauties of Europe. But, in addition to these, there will be excursions along the trail of the Brownings. This means charming excursions in out-of-the-way corners of Europe, which lend to this tour peculiar and gripping interest.”

Photograph of the Browning pilgrimage tour at Fano.

On the tour, the group visited important places in Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story including their home at Casa Guidi, Barrett Browning’s house at 50 Wimpole Street, the church where they were married, and the burial spot of Barrett Browning. The group also visited the Baths of Luca where Barrett Browning presented her Sonnets of the Portuguese to Browning. Another literary stop relating to the Browning’s works was the Piazza S. Lorenzo where the Old Yellow Book, the inspiration for the Ring and the Book, was found. The pilgrims even followed the trail of Pompelia and Caponsacchi while they were traveling. They were also able to visit Fano to see the Guardian Angel, for which Browning wrote his eponymous poem. During the trip, the pilgrims met significant people like Prince Fabrizio Cigala, the Governor of Calabria, professors at the University of Naples, and various Browning scholars and supporters.

 

Brochure for the second Browning pilgrimage.

The first tour must have been a success because in 1930 Armstrong Educational Tours offered a second Browning pilgrimage. This second pilgrimage had 19 pilgrims join on an even more expansive 5-month tour. The new additions to the tour included a trip to Ravenna to place a wreath on the grave of Dante and visit Ferrara which was associated with My Last Duchess. During their celebration in Rome for the fourth of July, the pilgrims met Contessa Zampini-Salazar, Count and Countess Vanutelli, and Donna Olivia Agresti-Rosetti, the niece of Christina and Dante Rossetti. While on the trip they even met the pope.

In discussing the second Browning pilgrimage, Dr. Armstrong remarked, “of all the twenty-odd tours I have made to Europe, this one was by far the most memorable.”

Although there was no documentation in this collection that shows the Armstrong tour company ever leading another Browning pilgrimage, Dr. Roger Brooks resurrected the trip in 1991. Dr. Brooks, the then director of the Armstrong Browning Library, offered a scaled-down week-long version of the trip. During the trip, Dr. Brooks participated in the wreath-laying ceremony at Browning’s grave in Westminster Abbey.

Going into this collection, I only expected to find an answer to the original research question, but instead, I was able to witness the dedication and impact of the Brownings that is still seen to this day.

Female Poets at Baylor: Fiona Sampson and EBB

Gallery

This gallery contains 5 photos.

By Katrina L. Gallegos, M.A. Candidate Museum Studies Graduate Assistant Armstrong Browning Library and Museum Last month the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum in partnership with the Beall Poetry Festival hosted distinguished English poet Fiona Sampson. Over the course of … Continue reading

Kress Collection Digitally Reunited

By Madeleine L. Svehla, MDiv, George W. Truett Theological Seminary

The launch of the Kress Collection’s Digital Archive continues Samuel H. Kress’ vision of making his 13th-19th century European art collection permanently available to the public. The beauty and magnitude of his collection of over 3000 pieces of art is now digitally reunited and can be accessed here: https://www.kressfoundation.org/kress-collection/list. The famous Kress Collection which is known as the premier collection of European art from the 13th to 19th century was distributed all over the United States to various museums, universities, and galleries in what the February 1962 edition of Life called the “Great Kress Giveaway.”

One of the Kress Collection's paintings on display at the Armstrong Browning Library

Francesco Zuccarelli’s “Landscape with Bridge” (1720) was acquired by the Kress Foundation in 1950 and is on display in the Armstrong Browning Library.

Building & Distributing the Kress Collection

The Kress Collection had its beginnings in the 1920s but the story behind the collection begins earlier. This is a story that involves hard work, brotherhood, and legacy. This legacy has been grown like a tree sheltered during its sapling state by the efforts of a younger brother committed to carrying out his older brothers’ vision. This vision could never have been developed without the perseverance shown by Samuel H. Kress in developing his entrepreneurship and building his company from the ground up. This is his story.

Christ the Man of Sorrows 1540 is by Giampietrino an Italian painter. It was acquired by the Kress collection in 1939.

Samuel H. Kress (1863-1955) was born during the Civil War and named after an uncle who recently died in the Battle of Gettysburg. He was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse while he saved up to purchase a Stationery and Notions Shop and eventually a Wholesalers. He opened his first 5 and 10 Cent Store in Memphis, TN in 1896. These stores became wildly popular and new locations opened across the United States. Through the success of these stores, Samuel Kress became one of the wealthiest men in America.

Italian art was not readily available in America in the 1920s when S. Kress through a suggestion by a friend began to be interested in collecting Italian art. He worked with Contini- Bonacossi to build his collection. He came to view it as his duty to share the masterpieces he had discovered. As the collection expanded, the Kress Foundation was founded to take care of the growing needs of the collection. The Kress Foundation was the most active buyer of European Art throughout WWII. Parts of the Collection were selected to tour the country and these local exhibitions were extremely popular. The Foundation decided that—rather than building a museum or gallery for the entire collection to be put on display— they would partner with museums, galleries, and universities around the US to display portions of the collection.

The Holy Family with the Infant St. John 1600 by Flaminio Allegrini. It was acquired by the Kress Collection in 1950.

In 1946, Samuel began to suffer from ill health and his brother Rush H. Kress (1877-1963) took over the foundations’ collection efforts. Under Rush’s guidance, the collection continued to expand and be displayed across the US. This collection has been preserved and remains cared for by those working for the Kress Collection and the institutions housing it. These men and women are continuing the work begun by the Kress brothers.

Kress Collection Donates 5 Paintings to Baylor University

The oldest and most valuable of these paintings is the Madonna and Child 1310. This painting is thought to be painted by a Pietro Lorenzetti follower. It was acquired by the Kress collection in 1939.

In 1961, the Kress Foundation generously donated five paintings to Baylor University that are housed in the Armstrong Browning Museum and Library. These paintings have been on permanent display in the Treasure Room for almost 60 years. Professors and students have been enriched by the ability to work with these paintings. For instance, Heidi Hornik Ph.D. (a professor of Art and Art History at BU) took her upper-division seminar class to the ABL and the students were able to examine the 14th century Madonna and Child in detail. To read more about Dr. Hornik’s work both in and out of the classroom, please visit: https://www.baylor.edu/alumni/magazine/1702/index.php?id=957830

Four of these paintings depict Biblical characters from Jesus’ life, such as Mary and John the Baptist. The final piece is a landscape. Each piece is a beautiful example of Italian art from the 14-18th centuries.

The Christ figure above the Madonna and Child is holding his hand in a distinctive way that has theological significance. The two fingers held up and slightly apart represent the human and divine natures of the person of Christ. The fourth and fifth fingers meeting the thumb represents the three in one mystery of the Trinity. He is also robed in blue and red which represent his divinity and humanity respectively.

Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and 3 Angels 1560 This painting is thought to be painted by an Andrea del Sarto follower. It was acquired by the Kress collection in 1950.

Robert Browning wrote the poem The Faultless Painter about Andrea del Sarto in 1855. Sarto is known for his meticulous attention to detail. Browning was inspired by one of his paintings and after researching the artist’s life wrote a poem that explores Andrea’s tragic love story with his wife. Though the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and 3 Angels is thought to be painted by a follower of Andrea del Sarto, it provides viewers with an idea of what Sarto’s meticulous style is like.

Leaving a legacy is like planting a tree. The one who plants it may never see it grow to full size. However, future generations are blessed by basking in the coolness of its shade and it leaves a lasting mark on the landscape. None of us can ever truly know the long-lasting impact our dreams will have or how the ways that we invest in the future may one day come to fruition. Samuel H. Kress’ vision of making his collection as accessible to the public as possible is now being accomplished in ways never dreamed of during his lifetime. Yet, his legacy lives on in the splendor of this shared collection.

Image Citations

Reflections on Installing ‘The Brownings In Our World’ Exhibit

by Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

A sculpture of a man and woman's hands clasped together.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, 1853; Plaster, 3 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

At the start of the Fall 2020 semester, I was very excited to work closely with Dr. King’s English senior seminar, The Brownings In Our World. I was just beginning my work as a graduate research assistant at the ABL and it was a great way to introduce me more intimately to the Brownings, to the excellent collections here, and to the role of being a research resource for the students. I truly enjoyed handling the objects and provided digitization services for the course. This specifically was needed for the images the students utilized in an online exhibition they created during the semester. The exhibit displayed the analysis that they had conducted about certain pieces in the ABL collections and used themes found in the Brownings’ works for application to current societal issues.

Book open displaying two pages.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children” in ‘Blackwoods Magazine’ (August 1843).

Being familiar with the materials that they used in their class exhibit and the details of the course, I was a great fit to help transition the digital exhibit into a physical one for display at the ABL. I had never created an official exhibit like this before, so it seemed like a large undertaking to organize it and write all of the official text. The most difficult part of this process was making edits that remained true to the student’s original work while also preparing it to the professional standards of the museum. The students made their dialogue accessible and appropriate for the digital platform of the class exhibit as an academic work; however, there are specific ways that the explanation for the physical objects must change to fit a face-to-face medium for a museum. Though a professional exhibit, the information has to be appropriate for a diverse audience with a wide age and educational range. The pieces also require 3D spacing and labels that provide context for the research. For someone who is unfamiliar with what they are looking at, having that additional information in plain language is crucial for fully understanding the object and its significance.

A very exciting moment was finally arranging the objects in their cases in the Hankamer Treasure Room. No matter how much you prepare an exhibit, it can’t truly work until you know if it will all fit and be arranged properly in your space. If something is too large, if your amount of text becomes overwhelming, or the flow of the exhibit does not feel natural, then it is back to the drawing board! Multiple arrangements were tested before the final day to avoid any major last-minute changes. Once it began to take shape, I began to truly feel excited about the end result!

Exhibit cases with items in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

Exhibit cases displaying artifacts from ‘The Brownings in Our World’ in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

As the last item was placed on the black velvet in the case, that moment was the ultimate culmination of the work completed by the students and I over the last several months. It was a satisfying feeling to see it all through to the end and to have completed my first professional exhibit! All of the details fell into place nicely and provided a very valuable and practical learning experience.

 

‘The Brownings in Our World’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

Browning Day 2021 in Review

by Rachel Jacob, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

To celebrate the lives and works of Robert and Elizabeth Browning, the Armstrong Browning Library holds an annual Browning Day Lecture. For the 2021 Browning Day Lecture, Dr. Joshua King presented his lecture, “Lords of the Earth? Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Christ’s Body in the Age of Human Domination.” A recording of the event is available on the Baylor Libraries YouTube Channel: https://youtu.be/Vnki2F6A-X8

For the Browning Day Lecture, Dr. King explored the interconnectedness and intersectionality of literature, ecology, and religion in the nineteenth century through the lens of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her work. The lecture focused on the relationship of humanity, nature, and God in Browning’s A Drama of Exiles (1844) and Aurora Leigh (1856). Dr. King explored how the industrial Revolution influenced and conflicted Browning as she searched for the balance of human intervention and the wildness of nature. In addition to the lecture, there were two question-and-answer opportunities with Dr. King. The questions ranged from Spiritualism to labor and Women’s rights violations.

Dr. King is an Associate Professor of English at Baylor University, specializing in Romantic and Victorian literature. He also serves as the Margaret Root Brown Chair in Robert Browning and Victorian Studies at Baylor’s Armstrong Browning Library. Dr. King has given lectures and organized conferences that explore the intersection of literature, ecology, and religion in the nineteenth century. This leads up to his Browning Day Lecture and upcoming book, The Body of Christ, The Body of the Earth: Nineteenth-Century Poetry, Ecology, and Christology.

If you are interested in the topics Dr. King covered, there is currently an exhibit on display in the Armstrong Browning Library, “The Brownings in Our World”, which covers Power and In/Justice, Relating to Nature, and Redefining Faith. An online exhibit is also available at https://blogs.baylor.edu/thebrowningsinourworld/.

Thank you for celebrating the life of the Brownings with us and for supporting the Armstrong Browning Library! Be on the lookout for Dr. King’s new publication and be sure to join us again next year!

The Brownings In Our World: Exhibit Introduction

by Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

A sculpture of a man and woman's hands clasped together.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, 1853; Plaster, 3 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

Our newest exhibit at the Armstrong Browning Library, The Brownings In Our World, began as a digital exhibition curated by Baylor students. During the Fall 2020 semester, an English senior seminar of the same name—ENG 4364: The Brownings In Our World—was taught by Dr. Joshua King and hosted at the ABL. This particular course was in perfect harmony with its surroundings as it explored how the lives and writings of the Browning poets might have important connections to major challenges in our modern world. Both Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning often reflected on complex subjects of life throughout their poetry, including injustice, relations to nature, and debated faith. The class studied the poets with these ideas in mind and published their findings in a digital exhibit created over the course of the semester. Each student chose artifacts or pieces of poetry found in the ABL’s collections that they analyzed and presented with various digital media.

As they held class here and utilized rare items from our collections, it seemed fitting to create a physical showcase to bring their research to a broader audience on campus, in our local community, and to all visitors of the library. A single item from each student’s presentation was selected to represent their thematic research and has been arranged for viewing in the Hankamer Treasure Room. The collective work of the class and the exhibit show the Brownings’ poetry as valid contemporary commentary for societal issues of today and promotes the research that can be found at our library. This kind of dialogue lines up directly with our mission of providing these materials expressly for the appreciation and understanding of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a grander context.

We invite you to visit The Brownings in Our World exhibit that is now available to view digitally at https://blogs.baylor.edu/thebrowningsinourworld/ and in person at the Armstrong Browning Library in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

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Themes as Explored in the Exhibits:

Power and (In)Justice:

The Brownings’ often wrestled with their own ties to the systematic racial, gender, and class injustices that shaped their lives and Victorian society. Despite these personal connections and even benefitting from some of them, Robert and Elizabeth advocated for those experiencing these inequalities and protested the perpetuation of these conditions through their poetry.

Relating to Nature:

Influenced by natural beauty and the romanticism of the previous generation, the Brownings’ utilized nature to express complex feelings of love and appreciation. They included flowers and natural scenes in much of their poetry, often appreciative of its effects on their quality of life. They also recognized that deplorable, unhealthy living environments could be detrimental and worked to bring attention to those experiencing poverty and terrible working conditions.

Debated Faith:

Robert and Elizabeth featured many religious ideas and diverse interpretations of sacred text in their works. Spiritualism and increasing debates about religion at the time created new definitions of faith that had profound influence on both of the Brownings. Their followers have even taken to devoting themselves almost religiously to their body of works.

 

‘The Brownings in Our World’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.

Reflections from a Graduate Assistant: On Fall 2020 & Browning Societies

By Rachel Jacob, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

Beginning graduate school is an intimidating endeavor. There are questions swirling in your mind such as whether or not you can make it through, if this graduate school was the right choice, and if you will enjoy the work when it actually becomes your job. I was fairly confident that I would be able to handle the academic requirements of graduate school. It was my graduate assistantships that concerned me the most. I could not be sure that I would be good at my job. Of course, it was not expected for me to already be experienced and know what I was doing. The point of a graduate assistantship is to give you that experience and that practical knowledge. But still, I had questions which needed answering.

One of the first substantial jobs I did at the Armstrong Browning Library was to organize materials from Browning societies or clubs across the world. Before my graduate assistantship at the ABL, I had no idea that the Brownings were such monumental figures in literature. I had read some of Robert and Elizabeth’s poetry, but was completely unaware of the devoted fans who follow them and their works to this day. The task of organizing and cataloguing the materials from different Browning societies opened my eyes to this fascination that still surrounds them. Each Browning society met consistently to discuss literary topics, mainly focused around the Brownings. With each society came things such as a yearbook for each year the club was in existence, meeting notices for each meeting, programs for every special event, and newspaper clippings with mentions of the club or the Brownings. The clubs spanned from Waco, to Seattle, to New York, to Manchester England. Certain clubs had materials which spread decades and generations. Some of these club are still in existence today.

At the start of this project, I was processing the yearbooks or meeting notices from different societies. Once I finished organizing and cataloging those, I began work on the New York Browning Society’s materials. This was separate from the yearbooks. In this material there were financial records, meeting minutes, bulletins, and event programs, and other miscellaneous society materials. This portion of the collection was mainly from the 1970’s through the 1990s. Unlike the yearbooks, which needed to be re-homed and catalogued, this material was partially unorganized. This presented new obstacles for archival work. There were certain areas of the materials which were organized with a clear original order. Those materials were not to be rearranged because the original order is kept as intact as possible. However, this whole collection did not have an original order. For the sections which no original order could be determined, it was my responsibly to decide what the best order was for these materials. This required intellectually and physically rearranging these materials to help them to make sense with the original order, while also being usable for research.

Two boxes sitting on a table.

NYC Browning Society Boxes

This whole project not only taught me about the enthusiasm that encompasses the Brownings, but also vital archival skills. Every object had to be arranged chronologically, catalogued, and described before being re-homed in a document box. This is basic archival work which I knew in theory, but was able to receive practical experience in.

The most important thing which this project, and everything I have done at the Armstrong Browning Library this semester, taught me was the answer “it depends”. There were countless times I would ask questions about organizing, archival processes, or the way things were done at the ABL to receive the answer “it depends”. In archival work, there is not always a right answer or an obvious choice. There are many variables that lead to the solution, and often times it is up to the archivist to make the decisions which will lead to the best solution.

Once I began receiving the answer of “it depends” at the ABL, I noticed that questions in my classes were answered with an it depends as well. In the museum field, there may be no right answer, no one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, the classes and the experiences of our graduate assistantships are giving us the information necessary to create our own framework to know how to proceed when the answer is “it depends”. I may still have the questions which I had at the beginning of the year, and this semester may have raised other questions in my mind, but I am in a program and working graduate assistantships which are teaching me how to answer my questions. And I look forward to continuing to learn through my experiences, particularly with archival and conservation work at the ABL in order to continue in their mission to preserve the Brownings in order to encourage the continued study of their works.

Reflections from a Graduate Assistant: On Fall 2020

By Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

Graduate Assistant Desk and laptop. Stained glass window depicting Robert Browning's Ferishtah's Fancies above desk.

Graduate Assistant Work Space

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the collections processing work that I have done for the ABL’s Browning Society Ephemera Collection! Many of these items were inaccessible and disorganized before and now they are reaching a point where they can be easily located. Its important to make sure that all our materials are stored properly and readily available to the next person who needs to use them. Files of correspondence, meeting minutes, announcements, and many other documents will now be preserved and accessible!

What helped you learn the most?

I was very happy to be able to assist Dr. King’s course about the Brownings’ poetry at the library this fall semester! It was a great opportunity to familiarize myself with what the library has to offer, how its resources are organized, and the processes of making those resources available to those who request them. I also learned about handling and preparing some of the rarer materials in the collection to be digitized as the students prepared a virtual exhibit. It was very exciting, and I enjoyed working with the artifacts, books, and manuscripts!

What would you like to do more of?

I would love to continue working with the collections directly and preparing them for researchers! I really enjoy being in touch with developments in the academic community and then providing the resources that they need to learn about their subject. The physical collections we have are fascinating and I enjoy discovering new things every day!

“Wilder Ever Still & Wilder!”: A Successful Benefactor’s Day 2020

By Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

On November 5th, the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum upheld its annual tradition of hosting a Benefactor’s Day program to thank all those that support the functions of our institution. The celebration looked a bit different this year—being presented virtually on Zoom to all the ABL’s benefactors and supporters—but was held in the same joy as all previous programs.

Wilder Ever Still & Wilder Image

Benefactors’ Day graphic designed by Baylor Libraries Marketing and Communications Department

Dr. Beverly Taylor and Dr. Marjorie Stone provided the afternoon’s presentation about their collaborative research into Victorian wedding journeys and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own enlightening experience as expressed in her unpublished honeymoon poem. Dr. Beverly Taylor is a Professor of English at the University of North Carolina and Dr. Marjorie Stone is the McCulloch Professor Emeritus of English at Dalhousie University. They discussed the historical and biographical context of EBB’s composition in the light of the Victorian era’s development of the honeymoon ritual and the transition of the Brownings’ courtship into intimate married life. Following the lecture, a Q&A session was held for viewers to ask questions over the presentation. A full recording of the celebration program may be viewed at https://www.baylor.edu/library/index.php?id=973376

Thank you to all who choose to support the Armstrong Browning Library and continue to contribute to our efforts towards providing collections, research, fellowships, and programming to our communities. We hope that you can join us again next year!

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Things Not Shown

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

Things Not Shown: What Didn’t Make It into the Exhibit

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

The Armstrong Browning Library holds a first edition of Matthew Arnold’s New Poems, including what is perhaps his most famous, “Dover Beach.” Hardly an argument for religion’s advocacy for ecological care, “Dover Beach,” provides a sobering counterpoint to many of the texts displayed in this fall’s exhibition, “‘Every common bush afire with God: Divine Encounters with the Living World.” While most of the exhibition’s writers and artists advocate for creation care because of nature’s participation in the grace and presence of God, Arnold’s poem argues the reverse. Rather than being “afire with God,” the natural world is empty of divine purpose or presence:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world. (113)

Arnold’s image of the “Sea of Faith…Retreating” represents for many what religious faith in the nineteenth century looked like. In the face of scientific and industrial progress, little room was left for the mystery of a divine Creator.

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

But other writers not only held to their Christian faith; they were moved by it to care for the world around them and create art and poetry that reflected that world’s beauty, fragility, and dignity. One could argue that Elizabeth Barrett Browning acknowledges Arnold’s perspective in A Drama of Exile. Written as a theatrical narrative of Adam and Eve, A Drama of Exile explores the broken relationship between nature and humanity as a consequence of the fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. At one point, Eve laments her separation from nature, remembering what she had been in the Garden:

…was I not, that hour,

The lady of the world, princess of life,

Mistress of feast and favour? Could I touch

A rose with my white hand, but it became

Redder at once? (72-73)

In sinlessness, Eve’s presence made nature more fully itself—the roses more red, the grass more green, the leaves of the trees more quivering with life, the birdsong more glad. In turn, she was more herself as well, more “princess of life, / Mistress of feast and favour.” Eve’s separation from God places her at odds with the natural world, limiting its capacity to communicate divine grace.

It is precisely because of this distance that poets like Barrett Browning must remind us through their poetry that nature has its own unique relationship with God, and that the common material of the world around us is also more than material. The distance incurred by the fall keeps God’s presence in the ordinary world from being self-evident. In her introduction to A Drama of Exile, Barrett Browning argues against those who would separate religious concerns from common life, “As if life were not a continual sacrament to man, since Christ brake the daily bread of it in His hands!… As if the word God were not, everywhere in His creation, and at every moment in His eternity, an appropriate word!” (6).

 

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

Poets like Barrett Browning who wished to speak prophetically on the state of nature in nineteenth-century imagination drew heavily on William Blake’s poetic works. Blake’s familiar poem, “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence and Experience, is one such reminder, not only that God made the “Little Lamb,” but that “he calls himself a Lamb” (11). The poem is a gentle, childlike reminder that nature shares in God’s blessings, and that all of God’s creatures are his children—not humanity alone. God can be known and understood by humanity through his other creatures.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Much later in the century, Gerard Manley Hopkins expands beautifully on this idea in his poem “God’s Grandeur.” In it, he describes how the whole earth is “charged with the grandeur of God,” but that we fail to feel his presence because “the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod” (26). This line echoes the narrative in Exodus in which God commands Moses to remove his sandals before approaching the bush burning with divine presence. The ABL’s current exhibition displays Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s prose novel Aurora Leigh, showing the famous passage quoted in the exhibit’s title: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God: / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes” (304). Christina Rossetti’s poem “Tread Softly,” from A Pageant and Other Poems is displayed next to Aurora Leigh, which also alludes to the Mosaic narrative: “Tread softly! All the earth is holy ground. / It may be, could we look with seeing eyes, / This spot we stand on is a Paradise” (153). In Hopkins’s poem, our failure to “tread softly” is directly related to our excessive concern with false progress. We have stripped the soil of its fruitfulness and beauty through “trade” and “toil”—both consequences of the fall, like Eve’s distance from the created world—and in the process we’ve “shod” our feet as well.

Hopkins’s poem ends in confidence, however, that “nature is never spent.” Looking back with twenty-first-century hindsight, it’s difficult to have such a hope. His poem “Binsey Poplars,” featured early in the exhibition, seems more honest about the irretrievable loss of nature as a result of human carelessness and destruction. To have hope, we need to take more seriously the possibility that the “grandeur of God” lies within all of nature. We need to believe with Barrett Browning that our deepest humanity is found in recognizing our participation in the natural world, not in setting ourselves at odds with it. Until then, it’s small wonder that Arnold’s poem rings true for so many readers. We have failed to take off our shoes.

 

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“: